books · writing

When a Writer Doesn’t Publish: ‘The Mountains of Parnassus’

 

Sometimes authors, even the most lauded of them, do not publish the books that they write. That doesn’t always mean that their words remain lost forever. Though Czesław Miłosz has been dead for over a decade now, Yale University Press has resurrected one of his long buried manuscripts.

 Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish writer and poet who survived two world wars – he helped ferry several Jews out of Nazi territories – as well as a chillier conflict. He defected from Communist Poland in 1951 and made his way to the United States where he worked as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and continued his writing. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. With his experience and renown, Miłosz could have published any book that he wanted.

But not all novels need an audience.

Between 1968 and 1971, Miłosz worked on a science fiction novel that would become The Mountains of Parnassus. The book explores a future in which religion, patriarchy, and other hierarchical systems no longer exist. Tyranny, repression, and the dangers of technology, however, survive. For a man like Miłosz, a man who lived in the beauty of words and wrote poetry for a pope, this future, one without art or faith, was the most terrible one he could create. But Miłosz never did publish the book.

Instead, he donated the manuscript along with many of his other papers to a library at Yale University where they sat and languished. Recently, however, first a Polish publisher and then Yale University Press decided to bring the book back to life.

The Mountains of Parnassus is a compelling novel that evokes its the political and spiritual tensions of the late 1960’s. Despite the brilliance of the prose, I can’t help but wonder whether or not the book should have been published. People argue that that writings of brilliant minds mustn’t remain hidden, but I wonder if that is always the case. I suppose the point is an unnecessary one to explore here; in the 1970’s Miłosz did send the manuscript to his editor. He had at one time hoped that the public would read the book. The ghosts of other manuscripts have hazier histories. What do we do with the diaries of dead famous folks? Poetry intended for only one set of eyes? A memoir intended for descendants but not for the public?

Perhaps this book is the appropriate one to inspire these thoughts. In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was home to the Muses after all. It was there that the arts in all of their forms flourished. Perhaps it should be there that we consider what must be done with art once it has been created.

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7 thoughts on “When a Writer Doesn’t Publish: ‘The Mountains of Parnassus’

  1. This post makes me think of the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman. I chose not to read it when it was released, but was recently given a copy, so I might give it a try. I don’t believe Emily Dickinson intended for her poetry to be published, yet they are an incredibly moving gift to the world. There’s a fine line between intention and exploitation of an author sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

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